Five edible plants for new foragers

By Tom Seymour | Jun 11, 2017

Does the idea of picking and eating wild edible plants interest you, but you don’t have access to nearby woods and fields?

Procrastinate no more. No matter where you live, some great-tasting wild edibles grow nearby. Foraging, popularized by Euell Gibbons back in the 1960s, has become a growing trend. But too many people are put off because they haven’t a knowledge of which plants are edible and which are toxic.

But you can easily locate and identify some great wild edibles, and you don’t need a teacher to do it. So relax. Help has arrived. Here are five common plants found on lawns, woodland edges and even vacant city lots.

1. Common Blue Violet

Those pretty little wild violets that grow on your lawn are eminently edible. If, like me, you hesitate to mow the lawn in order to enjoy the violets for just a little longer (OK, it’s an excuse, but a good excuse), then you have enough for picking.

Both the leaves and flowers are edible. Steam or simmer the leaves in water for only a few minutes, drain and serve. I like a little butter or olive oil and a few sprinkles of sea salt, but that’s a personal choice.

The flowers, plucked from the stem and eaten as is, make an excellent nibble, something to be eaten raw, out of hand. Violet flowers have, to my taste, a somewhat nutty flavor. But taste is subjective and others may describe the taste differently. Most everyone, though, once having tried violet blossoms, likes them. Also try sprinkling some colorful violet blossoms on salads to impart an extra taste dimension.

2. Dandelions

By now dandelions have mostly flowered and the leaves have become somewhat bitter. But the versatile dandelion offers another, less-known taste treat. Dandelion blossoms fried in batter have a taste that has me coming back for more. In fact, I find them habit-forming.

Just pluck the blossoms, rinse and dry and then dip in a batter. Any batter will do, but when fried in a tempura batter, dandelion blossoms can serve as an elegant main dish. I like to add one inch of oil to a cast-iron skillet and drop the battered dandelion blossoms in once the oil becomes hot enough for a tiny drop of batter to instantly bubble and turn brown.

Cook until golden brown, turning as needed, drain and serve hot. It’s a seasonal treat that will have you looking forward to the same time next spring.

3. Japanese knotweed

Japanese knotweed, which people often mistake for bamboo, has a bad reputation. In fact the state of Maine prohibits propagation or sale of the plant. This just shows how far the once-mighty can fall. During the late 19th century, knotweed was a highly sought ornamental and was even offered in plant catalogs of the day. The reason for this brief flirtation with knotweed was the tiny sprays of pale-white flowers.

But since knotweed spreads when given the opportunity, as when a town or city decides to deepen ditches without recognizing the Japanese knotweed growing there, the plant seizes its opportunity to spread out and conquer. Human intervention, more than anything else, is responsible for the spread of Japanese knotweed.

Most plants, though, even despised ones such as Japanese knotweed, have some redeeming qualities, and knotweed certainly does. Also, I always say if you can’t beat it, eat it, and that goes double for Japanese knotweed.

The young, tender shoots look a bit like asparagus spears and are prepared in the same manner. Just get a scant amount of water boiling in a frying pan or saucepan and simmer for no longer than one minute. Knotweed cooks up quickly and as soon as the spears turn color and become limp, they are ready.

Just drain the spears and serve immediately while still hot. Some like butter on their knotweed and others may enjoy a touch of cider vinegar. I like butter and a bit of Cajun-style seasoned salt.

But that’s not all for knotweed. Knotweed makes a fine rhubarb substitute, and we can prepare it any way we prepare rhubarb. Stewed knotweed, made by simmering inch-long sections of knotweed and adding sugar to taste, can stand alone as a tangy dessert, or it can be used in a pie filling. Knotweed jam, too, has its place in any cupboard. Just follow the directions on the Certo Fruit Pectin package, substituting knotweed for berries or other fruits.

Also, knotweed stands as the basis for a delicious chutney. My book, "Wild Plants of Maine," contains a recipe for knotweed chutney.

4. Orpine

Anyone who tends a rock garden will instantly recognize orpine. It is a sedum, much like the sedum we cultivate, except that it is a wild variety.

The fleshy, oblong leaves have a scalloped margin, or edge. In spring, though, the plant little resembles the familiar garden sedum in that it looks like a tiny cabbage. It is at this stage that orpine becomes such a great trail nibble. Just pluck the little “cabbages” and begin nibbling. This is one plant that absolutely needs no cooking.

I like orpine as a convenient source of food and energy while walking afield. It’s an easy, clean product that is as satisfying as it is filling. Sometimes the simple things are the best and in the case of orpine, it couldn’t be simpler.

Orpine grows in both good, cultivated soil and gravelly, nutrient-deprived soil. Find it on wet parts of lawns and field edges, along hedgerows and on roadside banks.

Orpine gives us another, unexpected food product. The roots form underground tubers and these are shaped something like short, squat parsnips. One orpine plant can yield an amazing number of tubers. Better yet, it doesn’t hurt the plant at all to dig and use the tubers. Just leave a few in the ground and the plant will quickly bounce back.

When preparing wild root crops, I don’t often peel them, but rather, just hold them under a stream of running water and scrub with a copper pot scrubber. After that, in the case of orpine tubers, simply boil as with potatoes.

5. Jewelweed

Best known for its poison ivy-fighting properties, jewelweed is also called “wild touch-me-not” because its seed capsules erupt when touched, shooting out seeds. Children once played a game to see how many seed capsules they could hold in one hand before one capsule blew up, setting the others off in turn.

All that has to do with adult jewelweed. But young jewelweed plants of no more than 5 or 6 inches tall make an excellent cooking green. These grow profusely in damp areas, ditches and even along shady, damp driveways.

Pick the tiny jewelweed plants by holding the plant in one hand and snipping the stem with scissors held in the other hand. Cut close to the ground, since even the stem is edible in spring.

Cook the same way as common blue violet leaves, that being by steaming or briefly simmering. Drain and serve. I enjoy simmered jewelweed for a week or so every spring. Perhaps it will become a regular favorite of yours, too.

I’ll wager that at least two of these wild edible plants grow near to everyone who reads this. In many cases, all five are readily available. So grab a cloth bag or basket, get out and begin foraging. It could become a lifetime avocation. And don’t be surprised if friends and neighbors begin calling you Euell Gibbons.

Author and naturalist Tom Seymour of Waldo is an expert on outdoor survival including hiking, fishing, sustainable living and edible wild plants. He is author of books including "Foraging New England," "Wild Plants of Maine" and "Hidden World Revealed." His new book, "Foraging Maine Mushrooms," comes out in June. Seymour is a sought-after teacher of foraging throughout Maine. For more information visit: wildplantsofmaine.com.

If you appreciated reading this news story and want to support local journalism, consider subscribing today.
Call (207) 594-4401 or join online at knox.villagesoup.com/join.
Donate directly to keeping quality journalism alive at knox.villagesoup.com/donate.
Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.